Richard “Dick” Higham began playing professional baseball when it was called Base Ball and it had first become openly professional. He began his first season in 1870 with the Morrisania Unions and ended that year with the New York Mutuals. His playing career as a professional lasted until 1880.
He was with the New York Mutuals in 1871, the inaugural year of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first professional association. Except for 1872 when he played with the Lord Baltimores, and part of the 1875 season when he was captain of the Chicago White Stockings, he remained with the Mutuals. In 1874, after a slow start for the Mutuals, he became their manager. The team finished with a .725 winning percentage under his leadership, reaching first place but losing out to the Boston Red Stockings. At that time, only wins were counted toward the pennant race. Since a number of the teams bested by the Mutuals folded during the season, those games were eliminated from their total count.
In 1876, the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, the progenitor of today’s National League, opened for business. That year Dick played for the Hartford Dark Blues, who were second to the Chicago White Stockings. He also played for Providence in 1878 and Troy in 1880 in the National League.
In the inaugural 1876 season, he tied with two other players for the most doubles (21) in a season while playing for Hartford. Playing for the Providence Grays in 1878, he led the National League in both doubles (22) and total runs (60).
In 1877, he was captain of the Syracuse Starts in the inaugural year of the International League (IL). The IL was a part of the League Alliance with whom the National League had a working relationship providing for, among other things, interleague play.
In 1879, he was with the Albany, New York team of the new National Association. The luminaries of that city hoped having a professional team would give it a metropolitan face. But politics and sharp business practices by the team’s owners resulted in a shift of the franchise to Rochester where they were nicknamed the Hop Bitters.
During his playing career, Higham captained and/or managed a number of teams. He played all positions except pitcher. He is best known as a catcher, second baseman and outfielder. He most often batted lead off. He finished his professional playing career with a lifetime batting average of .307.
His prowess as a player may be traceable to his father, James Higham, a famed cricket player with the New York Cricket Club. James also starred for the American All Star Teams that played the Canadian All Stars from 1856 to 1860 as part of the International Series between the two countries. During that time the American All Stars lost only once to the Canadians.
In an era when the average span of a professional player’s career was perhaps six seasons, Dick Higham played for ten years. By the time of the inauguration of the National League, his playing career, but not his love of the game, was more than half over. At the conclusion of his stint with the Troy Trojans in 1880, he remained in Troy, New York. In 1881, he became a National League umpire
He had umpiring experience during his playing days in the National Association. He had even umpired when his own team was on the field. This was not an uncommon occurrence as the players were the ones best versed in the rules of the game.
Like all potential umpires for the National League, he had to be voted on by all the team owners. The League Rules, in 1881, provided that a list of approved umpires be promulgated at the beginning of the season. In addition to being nominated to the list, each successful candidate had to receive the highest number of votes of all persons nominated until twenty-four were appointed. He placed third on the list in 1881.
An umpire was selected from the list at the beginning of the season and assigned to a team as the umpire for its games. He could be moved to other teams later in the season. When the 1881 season opened, Higham was with Providence, He later moved to Detroit, then on to Troy and finished back with Detroit. That first year, he umpired fifty-eight National League games. At the end of the season, a testimonial game was held in his honor.
In 1882, he was voted to the list in the same manner as the year before, placing number eight. Only one of the seven who placed higher on the list was being reappointed. All the rest were new comers as umpires. He began the second season with Detroit.
In any written account of Baseball’s early days, Dick Higham’s playing prowess and ability to lead teams certainly warrants a word or two along with the rest of early base ball pioneers. However, it is most often as an umpire that he garners unbridled verbiage to this day. He remains the only umpire to be forever disqualified from acting as such in any game of ball participated in by a National League Club. Although nothing is clearly stated in the official League minutes of a hearing held on the matter, it is assumed it had to do with gamblers. 1882 was the first year in which league umpires as well as players and managers were barred from betting on games.
While he was definitely barred from continuing as an umpire in the National League, suffice it to say that the affair itself and the actions of the League, it can fairly be said, are open to questioning and differing determinations.
Of some further interest perhaps is the unsubstantiated hyperbole, which was and has been written about the incident and his later life. For the benefit of history and future researchers, it can be stated clearly, that Dick Higham never confessed to any wrongdoing and denied such accusations; never resigned from his position as a League umpire; his activities were not the subject of any investigations by any private detective, nor was he ever confronted by the findings of any private detective; he did not draw any suspicions of the owner of the Detroit team for their losing out on close calls or having close games go against them. In later life, he was employed, on more than one occasion, as a bookkeeper. He did not become a “bookie” or “race track tout” in Chicago.
Dick Higham was born on July 24, 1851, in Ipswich, County Suffolk, England, to Mary and James Higham. On May 13, 1854, together with his mother and brother Frederick, born October 7, 1852, as well as his Aunt Matilda, he arrived in America. His father James had arrived on December 2, 1853. They resided in Hoboken, New Jersey, until 1870 when they moved to New York City.
James’ brother George, and his wife Sarah emigrated to America at about the same time. The brothers set up a business, in New York City, as tailors, a trade taught to them by their father, Robert. In 1865, they opened a restaurant on East Houston Street called “The Office.” It was a most successful establishment in the “English” style. It continued in that manner until July 1872 when James suddenly died. Aunt Sarah died in August of the same year. Mary had died in June of 1871. By the age of twenty one, Dick’s only remaining family in New York consisted of brother Frederick, Uncle George and Aunt Matilda.
Dick married Miss Clara M. Learned on September 6, 1888, in Kansas City, Kansas. Their first son, Harold (Harry), was born in December 1889, in Kansas City, Missouri, where they resided. Their second son, George, was born in April 1896 in Chicago.
Dick Higham died in Chicago, March 18, 1905, and was buried on March 20, 1905, in Mount Hope Cemetery of the same city.
Dick Higham File at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, New York.
Gerlach, Larry, and Harold V. Higham. “Dick Higham.” The National Pastime.
20 (2000), 20-32.
Higham, Harold V., and Larry Gerlach. “Dick Higham, Star of Baseball’s Early Years.” The National Pastime. 21 (2001), 72-80.
Higham, Harold. “Identifying 19th-Century Player Dick Higham…Perhaps!” The Baseball Research Journal. 31 (2002), 45-50.
Thorn, John, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman, eds. Total Baseball. 7th ed. Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, 2001.